January 14, 2013
"A Pickpocket's Tale: The Spectacular Thefts of Apollo Robbins"
Adam Green's January 7 New Yorker profile of a man regarded in magic circles as "a kind of legend" brings him front and center.
below, videos of the master in action.
Videre est credere.
Below, excerpts from the magazine piece.
Robbins, who is thirty-eight and lives in Las Vegas, is a peculiar variety-arts hybrid, known in the trade as a theatrical pickpocket. Among his peers, he is widely considered the best in the world at what he does, which is taking things from people’s jackets, pants, purses, wrists, fingers, and necks, then returning them in amusing and mind-boggling ways. Robbins works smoothly and invisibly, with a diffident charm that belies his talent for larceny. One senses that he would prosper on the other side of the law. “You have to ask yourself one question,” he often says as he holds up a wallet or a watch that he has just swiped. “Am I being paid enough to give it back?”
In more than a decade as a full-time entertainer, Robbins has taken (and returned) a lot of stuff, including items from well-known figures in the worlds of entertainment (Jennifer Garner, actress: engagement ring); sports (Charles Barkley, former N.B.A. star: wad of cash); and business (Ace Greenberg, former chairman of Bear Stearns: Patek Philippe watch). He is probably best known for an encounter with Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail in 2001. While Carter was at dinner, Robbins struck up a conversation with several of his Secret Service men. Within a few minutes, he had emptied the agents’ pockets of pretty much everything but their guns. Robbins brandished a copy of Carter’s itinerary, and when an agent snatched it back he said, “You don’t have the authorization to see that!” When the agent felt for his badge, Robbins produced it and handed it back. Then he turned to the head of the detail and handed him his watch, his badge, and the keys to the Carter motorcade.
In magic circles, Robbins is regarded as a kind of legend, though he largely remains, as the magician Paul Harris told me, “the best-kept secret in town.” His talent, however, has started gaining notice further afield. Recently, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and the military have studied his methods for what they reveal about the nature of human attention. Teller, a good friend of Robbins’s, believes that widespread recognition is only a matter of time.
I first met Robbins in Las Vegas, and he took me to a walk-around corporate gig at the Rio Hotel and Casino. At the Rio, Robbins took in the scene with the appraising gaze of a jeweller. A few dozen middle-aged men and women, a group of advertising-sales representatives and their clients, were drinking and eating shrimp on a patio in the late-afternoon sun. Robbins had been told that they would be dressed in “business casual.” Most of the women had on colorful low-cut tops, tight white pants, and mules. Only a few of the men wore jackets. “This is going to be interesting,” Robbins said. “O.K. Time to go shopping.”
Robbins strolled through the crowd, smiling and nodding, resting a hand on a shoulder here, lightly touching an elbow there. From time to time, he let his fingertips graze someone’s pocket, a technique called “fanning.” “He’s got a cell phone, keys, and maybe some cash in that right front pocket,” Robbins whispered to me, indicating one man. “What I’m doing is taking inventory and making sight maps and getting a feel for who these people are and what I’m going to do with them. I’m a jazz performer—I have to improvise with what I’m given.”
By the time he finished his circuit of the patio, his manner had changed: he was more animated and playful, his movements graceful, almost stylized. Later, he told me that he uses his pre-show scouting missions to segue into his thief persona. “Normally, when I’m not performing or stealing, I second-guess myself, I have doubts,” he said. “But when I get into that mode I’m invincible.”
When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time. At the Rio, a man’s cell phone disappeared from his jacket and was replaced by a piece of fried chicken; the cigarettes from a pack in one man’s breast pocket materialized loose in the side pocket of another; a woman’s engagement ring vanished and reappeared attached to a key ring in her husband’s pants; a man’s driver’s license disappeared from his wallet and turned up inside a sealed bag of M&M’s in his wife’s purse.
After the performance, Robbins and I had dinner at the bar. “A lot of magic is designed to appeal to people visually, but what I’m trying to affect is their minds, their moods, their perceptions,” he told me. “My goal isn’t to hurt them or to bewilder them with a puzzle but to challenge their maps of reality.”
To the extent that people imagine the training of pickpockets, they probably picture the sooty urchins of Fagin’s den, in “Oliver Twist,” rehearsing the theft of fob watches from gentlemen’s waistcoats. A similar sort of underworld academy, the School of the Seven Bells, is rumored to exist somewhere in Colombia: the final exam tests the ability to noiselessly remove items from the pockets of a jacket rigged with bells. But Robbins is self-taught, and his devotion to his studies borders on the monastic. Every moment not spent refining his technique or in some way expanding his knowledge of human nature and how to exploit it is, to his mind, time wasted.
In pursuit of his craft, Robbins has ended up incorporating principles from such disparate fields as aikido, sales, and Latin ballroom dancing. He is a devotee of books like Robert B. Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” and has also immersed himself in the literature of criminal lore.
Learning how magic tricks are done is often disappointing, because it’s not really magic. With Robbins, though, effect and method are one and the same, and seeing how he accomplishes his thefts is just as impressive as witnessing, or failing to witness, the acts themselves. Each movement dovetails perfectly with the next, with no extraneous steps or flourishes. When he places his arm somewhere, it’s not an accident; he’s blocking his victim’s view or locking him in place or temporarily stashing a wallet by pinning it against its owner’s body.
But physical technique, Robbins pointed out, is merely a tool. “It’s all about the choreography of people’s attention,” he said. “Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”
Robbins uses various metaphors to describe how he works with attention, talking about “surfing attention,” “carving up the attentional pie,” and “framing.” “I use framing the way a movie director or a cinematographer would,” he said. “If I lean my face close in to someone’s, like this”—he demonstrated—“it’s like a closeup. All their attention is on my face, and their pockets, especially the ones on their lower body, are out of the frame. Or if I want to move their attention off their jacket pocket, I can say, ‘You had a wallet in your back pocket—is it still there?’ Now their focus is on their back pocket, or their brain just short-circuits for a second, and I’m free to steal from their jacket.”
Orchestrating it all is what Robbins, by way of Maurer, calls “grift sense.” “Grift sense is the closest thing to a sixth sense we have,” he told me. “It’s stepping outside yourself and seeing through the other person’s eyes, thinking through the other person’s mind, but it’s happening on a subconscious level.” He went on, “I can analyze how I do things, but the actual doing it—when the synapses just start firing—I can’t explain.”
When Robbins was fifteen, he began to study magic seriously, after seeing a local magician at a county fair. Robbins honed his skills by performing at local restaurants. He preferred to forgo the usual props of the magic world, working only with whatever happened to be on hand. This was how he came to discover the entertainment value of secretly loading things into—and taking things out of—people’s pockets.
During his senior year of high school, Robbins began dating the daughter of a local minister, and she became pregnant. After much dour conferring between the families, the pair got married. In the wedding photographs, Robbins’s skin looks raw and patchy, the result of a fire-eating accident a week earlier, during which he had set his head aflame. Instead of calling 911, he called a local circus clown with fire-eating experience to come and help. After Robbins’s son was born, he dropped out of school and got a job doing illustrations for religious literature, but he grew restless and quit. He started reading books on personal development and sales techniques, and also put in a brief stint in telesales. “Everyone said, ‘He’s awfully flighty—he jumps from job to job,’ ” Robbins recalled. “But I would take what I needed and go. I figured I’ve only got so much time.”
When Robbins was twenty-two, he decided to move his young family to Las Vegas and devote himself to magic full time. Robbins describes his years at Caesar’s Magical Empire, where he worked from 1998 until it closed, in 2002, as his “college and graduate-school education” in picking pockets. His job was to dress as a wizard and provide seven minutes of entertainment for tourists waiting to be led to dinner by a toga-clad hostess. “I decided I wouldn’t do any magic tricks—just stealing,” Robbins said. “That way, I had to work without a net.” He estimates that he met twenty-four people during every show, and that he stole something from three of them. At six shows an hour, five hours a day, five days a week, forty weeks a year, that works out to at least eighty-one thousand pockets picked. “It was a hyper-learning experience,” he said.
Before long, magicians from all over the country were stopping by to see him work, and when they asked him about his methods he realized that he had nothing to tell them.
After Caesar’s Magical Empire closed, Robbins decided to bill himself exclusively as a pickpocket. He was soon in demand as a corporate entertainer. By the time he turned thirty, he was a fixture of the Las Vegas sleight-of-hand scene. Teller threw him a birthday party that was attended by some of the world’s best magicians. Looking around at the men who had once been his inspiration, Robbins realized that he had become their peer. He told me, “For the first time in my life, I felt like I really belonged.”
When I saw him recently, he was in New York shooting several spots for “Brain Games,” a National Geographic cable series that uses interactive experiments, demonstrations, and games to explore various aspects of how the mind works. He was also performing shows under the sobriquet the Gentleman Thief, consulting on the TNT series “Leverage,” and giving seminars for law-enforcement organizations. He was setting up a consulting and corporate-training outfit and collaborating with Barry McManus, a former C.I.A. interrogator, and Charles Morgan III, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School.
Robbins has also been approached by the Department of Defense to consult on the military applications of pickpocketing, behavioral influence, and con games. The D.O.D. has just endowed a new research-and-training facility at Yale, which opens this month. Robbins is to be an adjunct professor there, and will give lectures and design training modules. The defense application of Robbins’s work is less strange than it might at first seem. Barton Whaley and Susan Stratton Aykroyd’s “Textbook of Political-Military Counterdeception” (2007) notes that, in the nineteen-seventies, “conjurors had evolved theories and principles of deception and counterdeception that were substantially more advanced than currently used by political or military intelligence analysts.” I spoke to the Special Operations Command official who had recruited Robbins for the project, and he told me that Robbins had been brought to his attention by some of his men, who had been impressed by videos of him on YouTube. “It’s no big secret that a lot of Army Special Forces guys have a very big interest in magic and deception and being able to manipulate attention,” he said. “Apollo is the guy who actually gets into the nuts and bolts of how it works, why it works, and oftentimes can extrapolate that into the bigger principle.”
Robbins’s work has also been noticed by neuroscientists. A couple of years ago, he caused a stir at the annual convention of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, explaining his theories of attention management and deconstructing his “Coin on Shoulder” routine. The co-chairs of that year’s conference, Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, a husband-and-wife team of neuroscientists, subsequently started working with Robbins, and collaborated on a book, “Sleights of Mind,” which relates some of Robbins’s techniques to aspects of cognition.
The intersection of magic and neuroscience has become a topic of some interest in the scientific community, and Robbins is now a regular on the lecture circuit. Recently, at a forum in Baltimore, he shared a stage with the psychologist Daniel Kahneman—who won a Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics—and the two had a long discussion about so-called “inattentional blindness,” the phenomenon of focussing so intently on a single task that one fails to notice things in plain sight.
Many of Robbins’s neuroscience talks find their way onto YouTube, and I asked him if he was concerned that he might be giving too much away. “It doesn’t matter if people are aware of how I work, or even what I’m going to do,” he said. “They still won’t catch it. While they’re trying to watch for it, I’ll be watching them.”
Ultimately, Robbins would like to develop a different kind of stage act—a one-man show in a theatre. “I think the pickpocketing thing would be much more fun and engaging as part of a narrative about my life,” he said. Years ago, Teller told Robbins that he needed to ask himself two questions: Why do I steal? And why do I give it back? Increasingly, Robbins sees his stealing as “a metaphor, an experiment for me to play with human interactions.” He told me, “Looking back, I can see that I was really learning a lot about how people work through this little experiment of stealing from them. I learned a lot about how they handle their attention, how they handle stress, how they handle confidence. So when I look at why I steal, basically it’s my way of communicating with people.”
At the moment, Robbins has no idea how this more exploratory, biographical show might look, but he has known for many years how he would like it to end—with a spectacular act of theft that he calls his holy grail. “At the beginning of the show, everybody gets a nicely engraved black envelope and a little red paper heart,” he told me. “I say, ‘All of you have been given one of these. Put your heart in your envelope, seal it, and hide it in your purse or in your pocket. Guard your heart.’ ”
Robbins went on, “At the end of the show, I point to a guy in the audience and have him stand up. I show my hand empty, then I close it, and when I open it again there’s a heart in it. The guy looks in his envelope—his heart is missing. Then I reach into my pockets and pull out all the hearts—handfuls of them—and let them flutter to the ground. The rest of the audience check their envelopes, and all their hearts are gone. I stand there smiling, and as soon as I see that look of astonishment on their faces I bow and walk off. It’s the only time I don’t give back what I’ve stolen.”
Robbins laughed. Then he inhaled and let the air seep out through his lips. “Some people say, ‘Well, that’s impossible,’ ” he said. “But I don’t think so. Do I know how to do it yet? No. But I’m working on it.”
January 14, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "A Pickpocket's Tale: The Spectacular Thefts of Apollo Robbins":
You post things so fascinating my bookmarks menu now scrolls with no end in sight. Dude, make things less interesting for a while.
Posted by: friskypainter | Jan 15, 2013 12:00:44 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.